Light rail proves to be a heavy hitter Fans flock to trains, which sparkle in field

April 04, 1992|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Staff Writer

The three-piece combo struck up "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," on banjo, accordion and trumpet, and light rail cars Nos. 5013 and 5015 slowly pulled out of Timonium station.

Baltimore's newest transit system was on line at 12:02 p.m.

You can have your Orioles. You can build your ballparks. For the hardy passengers who braved the chill morning air yesterday -- they started arriving in Timonium as early as 9:30 -- getting there was half the fun.

"The light rail means more to us than any stadium," said Paul Fischer, 77, a retired printer from Cockeysville who was accompanied by his wife, Gladys. "We can take this all year long."

Jeff Joy was so excited about the 13-mile light rail trip from Timonium to Camden Yards that he drove from his home in New Freedom, Pa., to scout out the area a day ahead of time Thursday night.

He showed up an hour early yesterday, bringing his girlfriend, Jennifer Badders.

"We figured the first would be the best," said Mr. Joy, 27, a safety director for a lumber company. "We wanted to test it out, to see how it works."

An estimated 4,400 people -- about one in seven ticket-holders at yesterday's game -- rode the new Central Light Rail line to the Orioles exhibition against the Mets, transit officials reported.

While the Mass Transit Administration insists that May 12 is light rail's official kickoff and May 17 its first full-service day, these were the system's first paying customers, and many took cameras and video camcorders to record the inaugural event.

"I like it," pronounced 5-year-old Jonathon Howe of Towson, who woke his parents at 2:30 a.m. to remind them that yesterday was the day to go to the game.

"He wanted to ride the light rail," said his father, Steve Howe. "When he heard that it might be overcrowded, he was crestfallen. We decided we'd better take the first ones."

Indeed, MTA officials had publicly warned that interest in the $446.3 million electric trolley system was running so high that it might not be able to handle the load. They were happily proved wrong.

Even so, it came close. There was standing-room-only much of the time, and the only parking spaces not filled an hour before game time were at Timonium fairgrounds.

Some of the trains were so full that by the time they reached stops like Mount Washington or North Avenue, there was no room for more riders. On those occasions, customers had to wait at least 15 minutes for the next train.

Charles Schruefer of Bel Air was forced off the first train at Timonium because he couldn't find seats for himself and his two children, Jim, 16, and Amanda, 12, despite arriving 45 minutes early. MTA Police had reserved standing room in the aisles for customers further down the line.

"They should have planned things better than this," Mr. Schruefer fumed, "especially with all the hype about taking mass transit to the new stadium."

Five buses set aside to handle overflow crowds turned out to be unnecessary and were dismissed an hour before the game.

A dozen or more riders were disappointed to learn that the light rail service was to and from the game only and were turned away. Until the system opens in May, light rail will operate only to the games.

That means southbound service only to Camden Yards before (( the game, and northbound service after.

MTA Administrator Ronald J. Hartman declared the day a success for the fledging transit system. Fare machines functioned flawlessly, he said, and the only delays were reported after the game when fans mobbed the Camden Yards station and some had to wait as long as 20 minutes for a car.

Most of the runs between Timonium and Camden Yards took 45 minutes, about 10 minutes longer than expected. Operators blamed the lag time on the full loads and on long pauses at some stops.

"This was really our opening day," said Mr. Hartman. "By mid-May we ought to be pretty darn good."

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